The 10 Best Video Games Of 2016
It wasn't all about 'Pokemon Go'.
It seems fitting that in a year when escapism was so direly needed, video games delivered. 2016 has been a banner year for awfulness of biblical proportions. Heroes died and villains were elected; the emphatic emotional burnout over this utter anal fissure of a year has been exhausting and guttural. But games delivered. Goddamn, did they deliver.
Sure, they can’t undo the bad stuff, but good art is always a comfort. In fact, I’ve never played so many games in a calendar year! My podcast about gaming, 28 Plays Later, took me to Seattle and Los Angeles for live shows, I met all sorts of developers and listeners, and my list of games to play grew larger and larger. Confronted by a shitstorm of political garbage, I and millions of others retreated into worlds of make-believe.
Given that next year could very well be as bad, if not worse, you really ought to stock your bunker up with what I would deem the 10 best games of 2016. Grab your canned goods, get prepped, and dive on in!
10. Watch Dogs 2
Watch Dogs 2 should have been hot, stinky garbage. It’s an open world game (Grand Theft Auto style) in which you play a millennial hacker in San Francisco. It’s also the sequel to a bit of a wet fart of a first instalment. But where the first game had you play Aiden Pearce (a white, stubbled dad with issues and an axe to grind in Chicago) this sequel is a standalone story about a bunch of hopeful kids joyfully trying to take on bad guys in San Francisco (way cooler).
Instead of the sneering ‘parody’ that the GTA games wield like an idiotic Seth MacFarlane-esque cudgel, Watch Dogs 2 is a universe in which realistic (and likeable!) people become friends and try to do something good in the world. And what a world. San Francisco is my favourite city, and it really does come to life in Watch Dogs 2.
The only flaw? They didn’t put in the Tanner house from Full House. My recommendation: turn off the sub-par radio in the game, and put on the soundtrack to the ’90s hacker flick Sneakers. Works a charm.
Imagine a co-op shooter game having a baby with The Incredibles. That’s Overwatch. Winner of Best Game at The Game Awards 2016, Overwatch is HUGE. If you haven’t already played, it’s a frenetic team shooter filled with brilliant characters, in a universe fleshed out by animated shorts and comics.
You’re effectively playing as an array of quasi-superheroes, all extremely cartoonish, and trying to escort cargo/kill the other team/capture the flag. The joy of the Overwatch universe is completely infectious and there’s never a dull minute.
Work on Owlboy began in 2007, and it finally burst free of development hell this November. Part platformer, part adventure game, Owlboy is brimming with feels. You play a mute Owlboy (hence the name), and you undergo a perilous quest that would rival those of Pixar.
The soundtrack is gorgeous, the retro art style is stunning, and the characters — especially Owlboy and his close friends who accompany him along the way — make for a story most AAA games would struggle to measure up to.
Superhot has a core mechanic that is completely brilliant: time only moves when you do. It’s a first person shooter set inside a stark white world with bright red bad guys frozen in amber. To take them down, you need to plan every step and every shot very meticulously.
Back in 2013, the developers released a flash-based demo, and this year they finally released the game proper. The fantastic combat sequences are wrapped in a Terry Gilliam-esque minimalist dystopian story jammed inside a vintage DOS engine. Honestly, it’s a stupidly clever, exhilarating game, and the fact that the Superhot team have announced a VR spinoff has me VERY overstimulated right now.
6. Final Fantasy XV
Full disclosure… I’d never played a Final Fantasy game before this one.
The franchise can, at times, be daunting, and given that development began on XV in 2006, the weight of expectation from fans was staggering. But what we have here is equal parts Dragon Age: Inquisition, Full Throttle and Stand By Me; it’s a roadtrip movie about four friends, somehow set in a high-fantasy universe. You’ll down a centipede the size of a truck, then take a phone call, but somehow these anachronisms totally work.
The game kicks off with you (Prince Noctis, the brooding young heir to a besieged empire) and three friends (Prompto, Ignis and Gladius) pushing your broken-down car down a highway as Florence and The Machine’s cover of ‘Stand By Me’ plays. It sways between profundity and farce with reckless abandon; one minute you’re watching a cutscene where the fate of the world hangs in the balance, orchestra swelling to a crescendo; next minute you’re fishing for trout while acoustic guitar strums pleasantly in the background.
Your driver/butler/I wish he was your love interest, Ignis, is a hell of a cook, and watching him whip up delicacies before you and your new bromances cavort around a campfire means that when shit goes south later in the game, you’re all the more attached to them. It’s a huge, flawed, but utterly brilliant game and frankly I’m obsessed with it.
5. Quadrilateral Cowboy
This game sees a team of cyberpunks hack their way through a bonkers adventure which, frankly, I was not expecting to like as much as I did. In fact, I’ve never played anything like Quadrilateral Cowboy, and odds are neither have you (unless you’ve dipped into Blendo Games’ prior efforts, Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving).
It’s some truly avant garde shit, but because of the pacing and world design (plus the fact you never really get to dwell on a mechanic past the point of tediousness) it feels like a whirlwind ride. Even talking about Quadrilateral Cowboy makes me want to sit down and play it again, end to end.
Virginia is an incredibly cinematic experience. This isn’t to say it’s visually realistic; the graphics are deliberately minimal and blocky, but it still feels like coasting through a blend of Twin Peaks and early X-Files episodes.
The game sees you act as a federal agent sent to a small town to investigate a crime (the vaguer I am here, the better), but what makes Virginia absolutely sing is its ability to evoke the one thing cinema has that games never really capture: the edit. Mid-way down a corridor, the game will abruptly jump-cut you to another location in time with the score. It’s not afraid to yank you this way and that to make you feel something (excuse the phrasing), and it’s an instant classic as a result.
I realise I’m mentioning Pixar again, but honestly, Firewatch‘s opening minutes packs the same punch as the opening segment from Up. A picture is painted of a man’s fall from tragedy to tragedy, and then you’re deposited in his shoes as he hikes through a national park, assigned to a room in a tower, where he’s told to watch for fires. Firewatch (geddit?).
Equal parts creepy and touching, Firewatch is like roaming around in the best indie film never made; your interactions with your only other contact in the park, Delilah, are among the best performances I’ve ever seen in a video game. Chris Remo’s soundtrack is wonderful, the game looks divine, and much like with Quadrilateral Cowboy, just talking about Firewatch has me itching to dive back in again and see what I could do differently.
I made my dad sit down and play Inside, and he refused to get out of his chair until the credits rolled. It evokes the “oh shit, something has gone very, very wrong with the world” vibe of the film Children of Men, with nary a word said. Some vague details: you play a small boy running from… something. The game is very careful to let the environment do the storytelling, rather than any interstitial cutscenes or expository dialogue.
When Inside rolled to a close, I stood up and had to walk around the block for half an hour just to process what I’d witnessed. It’s a platformer, but it’s not about the action. It’s got puzzles, but they never slow down the plot. It’s deeply disturbing but oddly touching. And if you’re anything like me, once you’ve finished it, you’ll need to talk to someone. I’m happy to listen.
1. Uncharted 4
Remember Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the film that took all the goodwill of the first three Indiana Jones films and pissed it away? Indy is special to us because the films combine adventure, mystery, action and heart in such a brilliant way that nothing has managed to recapture the feeling they give us, deep down, including the fourth abysmal entry into the series. Luckily, the Uncharted series succeeds here, and in many ways exceeds its predecessors.
Nathan Drake is the hero of Uncharted, and he’s a loveable shitbag and scoundrel. But where developers Naughty Dog have excelled is in capturing not just the voices, but the performances of the characters; actors are mo-capped, and they work their hardest to deliver gut-punching performances.
Up until Uncharted 4, I’d have said Uncharted 2 and Unchartered 3 (written by genius Amy Hennig) were the best in the series, but 4 frankly delivers the feels of ten movies. It does things to your heart that cinema rarely seems capable of; total engagement on every level. The world feels more lived in and the characters more realistic than any game I’ve played in many years.
Can you play it without having played the others? … Unfortunately not. Naughty Dog have, however, released a remastered box set of the first three this year so you can catch up in style. Uncharted 4 is a goddamned treat from start to finish, and the ending had me weeping openly. You have been warned.
Paul Verhoeven is host of Steam Punks on ABC3, and host of the weekly gaming podcast 28 Plays Later. He tweets from @PaulVerhoeven.